On the cultural revolution

bei jing dong lu (北京 東路)

This will not be a detailed or complex history of the cultural revolution. But it is a somewhat personal view point of these events and the odd random things I have learned along the way, from the media and from being in China.

Before I first went to China in 1992, I knew about the cultural revolution only from the Australian Media. What I had seen on TV and in the news papers and what I had learned at school. I entered china without much of an interest to learn about the topic, and really this is where I still stand. But I am interested in such things from an anthropological and historical point of view. And I will talk of my view of others periods of china’s history in latter posts.

When I went to China my view was that it was a period of great ferment. A period when the new Political landscape of China was formed and the old destroyed. It was a time of massive deaths, from political violence and starvation, of major blunders like the decision to kill the birds because they were eating the seeds.

A money shaped building

What got me thinking about this time occurs in a little town call Leshan (乐山). In Leshan is the Leshan Giant Buddha (乐山大佛) and we visited it. We were told a story. Apparently a train of red guards left Beijing with the specific intent of destroying the Buddha. One of the leaders, Deng Xiaoping (I am stating this from memory, it was a long time ago) or perhaps some of his supporters were trying to stop these trains. They were successful with this train and it ended up in ChengDu. The red guards never made it to Leshan to destroy the Buddha. This was the first I had ever heard of decent from the top ranks of the party. I though, this does not sound like what I have been told it was. It sounds like a power struggle. But I put it to one side. There was too much to learn in China to ponder and I was not really interested in further investigation.

This was probably the only such event back in 1992. In the intervening time, I did read the odd thing with interest about the cultural revolution and started on the journey to my latter conclusions.

The next time I was in China was in 1999. In the interim time, Deng had died. One of the interesting things that happened, was that overnight tian-a-min square filled with flowers and tributes. The next day they were removed. The communists have never been happy acknolwledging Deng.

Back in China, I decided to learn a bit more about what the Chinese think of Mao. Well, seemingly he did not exist. There was just a mao shaped void. My chinese was not good enough and things were a bit tricky becuase of the NATO bombings of Serbia. So again I did not follow up. But more and more I was seeing the revolution as a political bun fight.

I travelled in China again in 2006, this time for 6 weeks and visited Manchuria as well as the places I had been before, Beijing, Xian, Shanghai (for the third time) and Yangshuo. When I was in Harbin, I found a statue of Mao, the first I had ever seen. I tried to take a photo, but was gently stopped by the guard on the gate. Apparently I was not allowed to take a photo of the defence HQ building behind the statue. But there was mao in the back blocks, a bit like the stautes of St Peter and Stalin in a park in the remoter parts of St Petersberg.

st joseph's church

The only other reference I saw was a poster of Mao in a lounge room in a village near Yang Shuo. I pointed out that I found the view of the Chinese towards mao ambivalent at the best. This caused the man who was eves dropping on us to leave the building. Very strange. I described the Chinese relationship towards Mao and the revolution as one of being like a bunch of Penguins. There are seals off the coast, they have eaten others. The Chinese are standing on the edge, they know they need to take the leap. No one wants to be the first one to jump.

So here is my current consolidated view. I may come back from time to time if I find that there are gramatical errors that do not cause this to correctly present my point of view.

The chinese know what happened during the revolution, so does the party. The party does not want to talk about it because the party is full of gits who can’t possibly admit that what they did was wrong because it would bring into question what they are doing. The people do not talk about it in the open because the party has secret police everywhere and if they did, they would likely end up in jail or perhaps be killed. So there is this silence, nobody talks about it. Every one who is not a vendor selling trinkets to foreign tourists wishes the whole mess would go away and help the forgetting by pretending that mao was just some kind of bad dream. The only people who hold mao in esteem are foreigners where he has pop icon status.

I veiw the cultural revolution as a continuation of the civil war. After the communists won, there seems to be a period of relative calm while they got over the victory and getting back into running the country. But China is not a democracy. It is an Autocracy. This means that it works more like a feudal system and the way to power is to get rid of your opponents. The Cultural Revolution was Mao and his sides attempt to remove the opposition from within the party. They used the chaos of the revolution to allow them to run roughshod over any processes and do what they wanted. The reason his opponents like deng are so loved is that they fought this and tried to protect china. Even until the end Mao’s wife saw Deng as her biggest threat. I suspect that this power struggle also has something to do with the split with the Soviet Union. Perhaps Mao’s opponents were the ones who had the Soviet’s support. This means that the civil was did not really end until the execution of the gang of four.

What I am really interested in learning is what people learned in school of this time, most particularly those in China. So if you have any stories, feel free to add them here, no matter how mundane they may sound to you.


  1. I think that the people who responded, how should we know he would think like that, should leave a comment here stating their real name and place of abode. Consider it the start of the process of putting things right.

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